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My ongoing love affair with Love Story

David Albury and Victoria Serra in Love Story at the Union Theatre, London. Photo: Darren Bell
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There are some shows you fall in love with at first sight. In the case of a musical, at first listen.

That, for me, was the experience I had when I saw the premiere of Howard Goodall and Stephen Clark’s Love Story at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre in June 2010.

I lauded it in a review for The Stage:

Where do I begin to sing this musical’s praises? “It fills my heart with very special things, with angels’ songs, with wild imaginings…” No, hold on, those are the cloying lyrics from the title song to the 1970 film version of Erich Segal’s novella, written at the end of the previous year. But whereas the movie was overwrought with the kind of sickening sentimentality that is signalled in that song, Howard Goodall’s gorgeous new chamber musical (which wittily briefly quotes it melodically) is finely wrought instead with an aching sensitivity as it replays the same story about love in the face of premature death.

I also penned a love letter in the Sunday Express:

Musicals may be a backbone of the West End, but they’re also in a state of flux and crisis. On the one hand, we already turn out world class performers who can and do hold their own on any stage… But on the other hand, original new British musicals are still in dismally short supply. Andrew Lloyd Webber alone seems to be able to command a West End stage to premiere a brand new show, and then it probably helps that he actually owns several of the prime theatres at which they find a home. Howard Goodall – whose first musical, The Hired Man, was actually produced by Lloyd Webber back in 1984 – hasn’t had a musical in the West End since his second one flopped 23 years ago.

Later that year, Love Story duly transferred to the Duchess Theatre, to give Goodall his third West End outing. But despite my widespread championing of it, it flopped all over again. That’s despite the utter radiance, piercing feeling and utter heartbreak that its original cast, led by Emma Williams and Michael Xavier, brought to it.

Photo: Darren Bell
Photo: Darren Bell

However, just as Goodall’s The Hired Man has proved to be an enduring modern classic, I’m convinced that Love Story will follow it into the history books. In 2012 I even hurried down to Philadelphia on one of my regular trips Stateside to catch its US premiere at the Walnut Street Theatre. It starred Alexandra Silber – a blazing American performer who once did a stint in the West End after training at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy in shows like The Woman in White, Fiddler On the Roof and Carousel – who it turned out was coincidentally one of Williams’ best friends.

Just a few months ago, I even more coincidentally ran into Al Silber in Bromley, when she was back over here to star in the BBC Prom version of Kiss Me, Kate. She was in the audience to watch Emma in her recent appearance in the title role of the touring Annie Get Your Gun.

Williams, who I first interviewed when she starred in the ill-fated West End premiere of Desperately Seeking Susan at the Novello, has long become a friend, and indeed at my post-wedding party in the summer of 2012 she and Michael Xavier sang (to Goodall’s personal accompaniment) some songs from Love Story.

[pullquote]Love Story returns in an exquisitely-wrought new production[/pullquote]

So the show means a lot to me. And last week, its return to London in an exquisitely-wrought new production at the Union Theatre, gave me a wonderful chance to revisit it – in the company of Williams. I invited her to join my husband and me, and she in turn invited Rebecca Trehearn, who was her West End understudy in the role.

I’ve only experienced an intimate connection to the original show like this once before, when I invited the wonderful Rebecca Caine – the original Cosette in Les Miserables – to see a preview of the film version with me. She wept copiously beside me, mainly for the memories it triggered of the show’s original creation at the Barbican and its transfer to the West End’s Palace, and all the friendships she had made.

Photo: Darren Bell
Photo: Darren Bell

Last weekend Williams, who was instrumental in creating the role of Jenny, watched the show as an audience member for the first time – and the tears were flowing again. As a performer, of course, you can’t surrender to them or you wouldn’t get through the show; but as an audience member, you can. It felt like a huge release of emotion.

But then the show is truly cathartic, in the best way. It’s a show with one of the best books of any recent British musical. It compresses and distills emotions with tact and clarity. Just to watch the scenes in which both Jenny and Oliver interact with their respective parents is a model of storytelling.

And Goodall’s aching, haunting score supports it all the way, especially as sung with such effortless ease here by the quietly wonderful David Albury and Victoria Serra as the two protagonists, under the beautifully tender musical direction of Inga Davis-Rutter.

[pullquote]Three superb graduates make their professional debut in the company[/pullquote]

Sasha Regan’s intimate, exquisite staging is a wonder of economy. And as ever at the Union, it wonderful to see both newcomers and returning stage veterans alike: there are three superb recent graduates making their professional debuts in the company, but also a real treat to see the return to the stage of Deborah Poplett – one of the original juvenile leads of Cameron Mackintosh’s 1987 production of Follies at the Shaftesbury – back on stage as Oliver’s mother.

I saw that production of Follies again and again – yes, I was repeating myself even then – and so fell in love both the show and its company. For Love Story, I was already in love with the show. Now I’ve just fallen in love with another company.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

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